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Building Hacker Collective Identity

Building Hacker Collective Identity

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Published by: PartidulPiratRomania on Mar 11, 2013
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  Media History Monographs 11:2 (2008-2009)
 
ISSN 1940-8862 
Building Hacker Collective IdentityOne Text Phile at a Time:Reading
 Phrack 
Brett LuncefordUniversity of South Alabama
Research concerning computer hackers generally focuses on how to stop them; far less attention is givento the texts they create.
 Phrack 
, an online hacker journal that has run almost continuously since 1985, isan important touchstone in hacker literature, widely read by both hackers and telephone and network security professionals. But beyond its instantiation as a compendium of illicit technical knowledge,
 Phrack 
was, above all, a rhetorical publication. The files in each issue of 
 Phrack 
created a sharedrhetorical vision concerning the place of the hacker underground within society and in relation to lawenforcement officials, as well as what it means to be a hacker. This essay examines two important eventsin the evolution of the hacker movement through the lens of 
 Phrack 
 —Operation Sundevil and the arrestof Kevin Mitnick. How these events were framed in
 Phrack 
both shaped and reflected emerging shifts inhacker collective identity. 
©2009 Brett Lunceford
 
 
 Media History Monographs 11:2
 
 Lunceford: Reading 
Phrack  1
 
Brett Lunceford is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of South Alabama where heserves as the head of the Interpersonal / Rhetoric track. This manuscript is partially derived from hisdoctoral dissertation, “Democracy and the Hacker Movement: Information Technologies and Political Action,” directed by Thomas W. Benson at the Pennsylvania State University.
Building Hacker Collective Identity One Text Phile at a Time:Reading
 Phrack 
 
Stephen Segaller describes the formation of the Internet as “one of the twentieth century’smost productive accidents,” explaining that the“seeds of the Internet were planted by the U.S.government in the wake of nationwide concernover the Soviet launch of 
Sputnik 
.”
44
Hackerswere an integral part of the construction of thisnetwork. Scholars have traced the origins of the computer hacker to the computer  programmers of the 1950s and 1960s who, for the most part, worked in universities on projects funded almost exclusively by thegovernment.
45
These programmers wereinstrumental in the formation of ARPANet,created as a communication system that could be used in the event of a nuclear attack.Randall points out that while ARPANet was amilitary venture, there are severalinterpretations of the origins of ARPANet,including a decidedly non-military version thatexplains ARPANet as a way to develop anetwork that people wanted anyway. After all,he explains, it was the height of the Cold War and military spending was at an all time highand by framing a project as useful for themilitary, one could more easily gain funding.
46
 Hackers were useful to government andindustry for the same reasons that they are now perceived as a threat—hackers are inquisitive,driven by internal rather than externalmotivations, and refuse to accept boundariesconcerning what can and can not be done.Although public fear of hackers, withincreasing concern over cyberterrorism andidentity theft, seems to be a fairly recent trend,this sentiment began in the early 1980’s.Headlines such as “Raising SecurityConsciousness; A Monthly Guide for Managers that Helps Protect Corporate Datafrom Assaults by the Hackers” and “TheWorld of Data Confronts the Joy of Hacking,”which begins, “The recent electronicescapades of a group of Milwaukee youthshave brought national attention to the growing problem of computer security,”
47
demonstratethe early concerns over hackers in the media.Eric Raymond explains that 1984 marked thetime “that serious cracking episodes were firstcovered in the mainstream press—and journalists began to misapply the term ‘hacker’to refer to computer vandals.”
48
Sociallyconstructed views of hackers haveconsiderable weight and, in large measure,these views have been influenced by popular  press and network security journals thatdescribe hackers as a threat.A commonly held myth concerning hackersis that they break into computer systems because they want to intrude on other networks or steal information such as creditcard numbers or passwords. These hackers doexist, and, unfortunately, this is the kind of hacking that has received the most attentionfrom law enforcement, the media, and thegovernment. But other motivations may alsolead to hacking. Some hackers are interested incomputer security. Others may simply want toknow that they can access a particular network—in other words, it is not the actualutility of accessing a network, but the potentialof realizing that utility if necessary. There arelesser acknowledged professional interests aswell; many hackers are also computer industry professionals. In other words, the people who build word processing programs, Internet browsers, and computer systems may be the
 
Media History Monographs 11:2
 
 Lunceford: Reading 
Phrack  2same people who are interested in breakinginto the code of these programs and systems toexamine how they can be made more efficientand more secure.As a group, hackers defy a clear,overarching definition because they exist inthe liminal space between the fears and thedreams of how technology is shaping society.Inquisitiveness and a desire to push the boundaries of what something can do comprisethe essence of hacking. For example, Levydescribes the MIT Tech Model Railroad Clubas an early hacker group because theymodified and incorporated discarded telephoneequipment into their existing model railroadsystems.
49
This is an excellent example of hacking that does not conform to thevernacular usage of the term. Jon Ericksonstates, “There are some who will still arguethat there is a distinct line between hackers andcrackers, but I believe that anyone who has thehacker spirit is a hacker, despite what laws heor she may break.”
50
Yet, like hackersthemselves, the “hacker spirit” is also difficultto define.Perhaps another difficulty in solidifying aclear definition of hackers stems from thecompeting definitions that come from hackersthemselves, the mass media, government andlaw enforcement agencies, and legislation.Even within the hacker community, definitionsof what it means to be a hacker are contested.The various definitions may have differentcriteria for inclusion and exclusion but theimposition of a definition may carry seriousconsequences. Yar points out that “thecontested nature of the terms [hacking andhackers] . . . shows how hacking, as a form of criminal activity, is actively constructed bygovernments, law enforcement, the computer security industry, businesses, and media; andhow the equation of such activities with‘crime’ and ‘criminality’ is both embraced andchallenged by those who engage in them.”
51
A particular group’s self-definition is not theonly possible definition, and questions of definition are important—especially whensuch definitions carry the possibility of a prison sentence. As hackers have becomerhetorically constructed as terrorists ingovernment and media discourses, hackershave worked to provide alternate definitions of hackers and hacking.Despite the intricacies and contradictions of hacker identity, some core tenets can bedistilled through their writings.
 Phrack 
, anonline hacker journal, is one of several hacker texts that provide hackers with a way of seeingthemselves and their place in the world byreporting on and defining the exigencies thatspurred hackers into creating a shared identity.This essay examines how
 Phrack 
framed twosuch exigencies, Operation Sundevil and thearrest of Kevin Mitnick, which helped shapehacker collective identity. Other scholars havetraced the history of more mainstreamhackers
52
; this study seeks to provide analternate history of the more subversiveelements of the hacker movement by closelyexamining these two defining moments asrecorded in the pages of 
 Phrack 
.
The Politicization of Hackers
Before delving into
 Phrack 
, we must firstexamine the events that led to its creation.Some scholars argue that the politicization of the hacker is a relatively new phenomenon.Douglas Thomas states that hackers had morelimited political agendas in the 1970s and1980s and that most attacks were then directedat the phone company but that “more recently,in the wake of the AT&T break up, with therise of the Internet, and with the increasingglobalization of technology, hackers have begun to engage in more concerted politicalaction, at both local and political levels.”
53
 Thomas identifies Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc)as “the first hacker group dedicated to a kindof political action based on principles of civildisobedience and visibility, and . . . the firstgroup to connect hacker identity with thenotion of political action.”
54
 

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